Dancing with the Inner Critic
Sharon L. Werner, MA, LLPC
If you gave your inner genius as much credit as your inner critic, you would be light years ahead of where you stand now. Alan Cohen (found on the Internet)
“Yeah, right!” The voice in my head said. “You think you can do this? Fat chance. You’ve never managed to do it before. Look at your track record! No way. You might as well give up right now and save yourself the grief and disappointment.”
Have you ever heard a voice like this in your head? A voice that tries to talk you out of doing things you really want to do? A voice that constantly argues for your limitations?
The fact is, whether or not we are aware of it, we all have a constant stream of evaluations – of ourselves and others – going on in our heads. These thoughts usually reflect the ideas we have learned from our families, our friends, and our culture, and the values driving them reflect the same.
Maybe your inner critic makes comments like this:
“You look ridiculous in that outfit!”
“Everyone thinks you’re an idiot.”
“I’m never going to amount to anything.”
The inner critic may sound as if it is talking to us (in much the same way others have spoken to us) or it may sound like our own fearful, negative thoughts. In either case, the inner critic is largely nothing more than internalized beliefs we have inherited from the world around us. This critic is, therefore, not based on anything real or of value. It is based on ideas. The inner critic often drives us to say and do things that are ultimately not in our best interests…then beats us up for doing so! It is a kind of “heads you lose, tails you lose” scenario that can drive us into a frenzy of emotionally chasing our tails, around and around until we no longer know what we want or who we are.
What then, you might ask, is the purpose of an inner critic? Given that it can be so damaging, why would such a mechanism exist in our minds at all? There are those who believe that the inner critic evolved to protect us. Humans are social animals, and we depend upon each other for survival. Therefore, any threat to our social standing or social acceptance can be interpreted by our minds and bodies as a very real threat, indeed! While such a strong critic can be harmful, its purpose may be in some way to protect us.
The fact is, as cruel as it can sound, and as misguided its approach, your inner critic is in some way trying to protect you. It’s just going about the process of protecting you in a harmful way. And unfortunately, it is a part of ourselves that we have had a lot of practice believing! It’s as if we have exercised our inner critic over and over again…what compassion-focused therapist
Russel Kolts calls “sending it to the gym.” It’s become big, burly, strong, and ready to spring into action quickly!
If we want to break the spell of the inner critic and enter into a calmer, more compassionate and more reasonable space, going to war with the inner critic is an approach that will backfire. We will end up in a power struggle within our own mind, and our body will respond the way it does whenever we encounter a threat. It will tense up, become flooded with stress hormones, and do all of the other things a body does when preparing for battle. A more useful and compassionate approach is to learn to listen to the message of the inner critic while learning to understand that it is reflection of a learned, fearful part of ourselves. Once we have done this, we can work on cultivating an “inner coach” – an inner nurturer, an inner cheerleader. We can work on sending this part of ourselves to the gym by cultivating this inner coach intentionally, mindfully, and compassionately. The idea is to grow the strong, warm, compassionate part of ourselves – to send our inner coach or our “compassionate self” to the gym so that it can offset the inner critic and become a source of strength, warmth, and wisdom.
Below are exercises you can use to begin to grow your inner coach, inner cheerleader, compassionate self, caring committee, or whatever you choose to call the part of yourself that can cheer you on and support you. Eventually it can become as large a presence in your life, and, with practice, a larger part than the inner critic.
Your Caring Committee
This exercise comes from Rick Hanson, PhD, a neuroscience and mindfulness informed clinician and teacher who focuses on helping us to “grow the good” in our own minds. Bring to mind people you would love to have on a committee to support you. These may be people you know from your own life, spiritual guides, even characters from fiction or movies. Be creative! You can print out images of the people or characters if you like, or simply spend time thinking about the qualities they possess…qualities that make them capable of guiding you and supporting you from a caring space. When faced with a challenge, bring to mind these committee members. Imagine yourself surrounded by them and allow yourself to feel their warm, wise, supportive energy. You might even ask them to weigh in on important decisions.
Your Ideal Compassionate Self
In this exercise from Compassion-Focused Therapy, we contemplate the qualities of an ideally compassionate, supportive person. These qualities might include wisdom, strength, warmth, kindness, and the ability to respond in life in a balanced way. You might imagine the feelings you would have if you possessed these qualities and allow your body language and facial expression to match the way you would feel if you possessed those qualities. You could even spend some time visualizing yourself interacting with the people in your world from this wise, compassionate space. How would you speak? What would your tone of voice sound like?
These tips on working compassionately with the inner critic come from Kristin Neff, PhD.
- The first step is to catch the inner critic in action. Then we bring mindfulness to bear, putting on our “detective’s hat” to notice the kinds of thoughts that come up. What are the common criticisms? Is the tone of voice harsh and angry? Does it call you names? For instance, if you are upset and reaching for a bag of potato chips, what kinds of comments does the inner critic make?
- Next, respond to the critical voice with compassion, kindness, and curiosity. For instance, you might say to the critic, “I understand that you are trying to protect me, but the way you are speaking to me is very hurtful and doesn’t help me to do better.” This step reduces the sense of threat we feel in our bodies and minds and helps to clear the way for the next step.
- bring your compassionate self into the picture and let it have its say. “I understand that you are angry and fearful right now, and you really feel like that bag of potato chips is going to help. I get it. What if we tried something different?” With the space created by mindfulness and kindness, we can consider other ways to soothe ourselves…and because we haven’t given in to the critic, we have moved out of a more threat/defense orientation into a soothing orientation, which opens our minds creative options.
Would you like to learn more working with your inner critic in a compassionate way? Our therapists are trained to help you work with inner critical thoughts. If you or someone you know would benefit from learning more about working with self-criticism, please contact us today. We would be happy to speak with you about how we may be able to help.
Kristin Neff, PhD – https://self-compassion.org/why-we-need-to-have-compassion-for-our-inner-critic/
Rick Hanson, PhD – www.rickhanson.net
Banish Your Inner Critic: Silence the Voice of Self-Doubt to Unleash Your Creativity and Do Your Best Work (A Gift for Artists to Combat Self-doubt and Listen to Their Inner Voice) – Denise Jacobs
Self-Compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. – Kristin Neff, PhD
The Compassionate Mind Workbook: A step-by-step Guide to Developing your Compassionate self. Elaine Beaumont and Chris Irons.
The mindful path to self-compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions. Christopher Germer, PhD